It’s my first night in Havana and I’m watching Los Cuatro, Cuba’s hottest reggaeton act, shake it on a stage populated by glittering rumba girls and – don’t ask me why – a lime-green Audi. It’s an act you’d expect to catch in an abandoned factory or subterranean dance club. But leaving La Cecilia, I’m surprised the outdoor concert venue is nestled in Playa: The handsome Havana suburb is known more for Art Deco mansions housing European embassies than for a happening hip hop scene. In a city where so much of daily life takes place under the radar, it turns out music is a why-not-in-my-backyard affair.
The members of Los Cuatro are part of a new generation of Cuban artists who are blending hip hop, dancehall and electronica with the traditional rum-soaked rhythms. Like compatriots Danay Suárez (pictured above) – a petite 26-year-old singing sensation who can switch from a slow-burning jazz ballad to cheeky, socially conscious rap mid-set – and mustachioed electronic duo Nacional Electrónica, Los Cuatro are a uniquely Cuban phenomenon – an internationally acclaimed act that you pretty much have to travel to Cuba to see.
You can drop in on these musicians in venues across Havana thanks to efforts to boost the city’s cultural cred beyond Buena Vista Social Club. Projects like Havana Cultura, a promotion initiative-cum-grant program run by rum brand Havana Club, have breathed fresh life into venerated theatres like Centro Cultural Bertolt Brecht, whose basement café is now a hub for the city’s emerging talent.
Go there on a Wednesday night and you’ll think that every art student-type in Havana has braved the queue to dance, mingle and make out while timba-funk band Interactivo trades verses with flame-haired film composer Kelvis Ochoa. As you nurse your mojito at the bar, you might catch half of hip hop duo Los Aldeanos, whose politically pointed rhymes – delivered over haunting piano hooks and minimalist beats – have made it increasingly hard for them to book a gig of their own. That’s the thing about this town: In Havana, even the biggest stars are legitimately underground.
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